Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”
“Me, Again” by Hope Edelman
Once, I was twenty eight: Single, abundant with energy, living in New York. I’d found a hidden tribe of women who were just like me, women who’d been children and teenagers when their mothers died. Time felt expansive. During the day, I typed my first book in a garret apartment in a brownstone on Washington Square. Nights, I spent in warm, dimly lit West Village cafes. On the weekends I played shortstop for the Writer’s Union team. We were just as bad as you might imagine. We didn’t care. We were grateful just to be outside during sunlight.
Once, I was forty one. A wife and mother of two, living on the westernmost edge of the country. During the days I carpooled and shopped for groceries and taught MFA students the difference between narration and reflection. At night I fell into bed exhausted from trying to mother and wife and drive and cook and teach and write. I lived in fear of getting breast cancer at forty two, of leaving my children too young, as my own mother had done. Or that something would happen to my daughters. The days were long and the weeks were short. How did anyone survive the years?
Once, I was forty nine. My first book twenty years in the past, five more on the shelf. I was aggressively healthy. I hadn’t known to plan for that. Also, children were much more durable than I’d imagined, and grew up faster than I ‘d been prepared for. Who knew? There was little fear of breast cancer. It was all about paying for college. The days and weeks were both short, and not all of my friends were getting to see them. That was the hard part now.
Motherless Daughters, the book I typed on an IBM PC with two floppy drives was published in 1994, when I was just two years out of graduate school. Since then, in one manner or another, I’ve been writing about the same subject for twenty three years. Twenty three years! That’s a lot of time for a writer to be in relationship with a single topic, and surely ample time to have branched into others. And I have, to some degree, having written about parenting and marriage and sex and travel and Bruce Springsteen, about writing and teaching writing and Mayan healing, and about the making of a Hollywood film. I’ve written research- and interview-driven books and personal essays and memoir, flash nonfiction, and spoken word. But whatever genre or topic I explore, a single subject matter – early mother loss – follows me like a persistent background buzz, working its way into all my stories.
That first book, Motherless Daughters, was a blend of research, interviews, and memoir. I was seventeen when my mother died after a fierce, year-long engagement with breast cancer. When it was published I was twenty nine – so, twelve years after the event itself. Like many adults who lost a parent during childhood or adolescence, that single event still felt like the defining event of my life. Even after twelve years.
The publicity and attention surrounding the book launched my professional career. It also established me as an author who writes about bereavement. Particularly childhood bereavement. Specifically, early mother loss.
More please, the publishing world said.
Two more books followed – Letters from Motherless Daughters, and Motherless Mothers. Other books and essays and anthologized short works of memoir came and went, but these books, and this subject matter, remain what I’m best known for and for which the media comes calling every year for Mother’s Day. It’s led me to speaking engagements; television interviews; a coaching practice that specializes in the long-term effects of early loss; and three-day retreats for motherless daughters that I lead with another author several times a year. A relative once referred to my first book as “the gift that keeps on giving” and I’m not sure she meant it as a compliment. It’s something I’ve wondered myself: Is there not something fundamentally off about a 52-year-old woman still writing about the death of her mother when she was seventeen? Should I not have found other topics that compel me just as much, other inkwells in which to dip my pen?
Maybe. Maybe not. Honestly, I never felt the impulse. To me, it’s never the same topic twice. What I mean is, when I return to the subject at different intervals, the story looks different each time.
Imagine a room in the aftermath of an event. We enter the room through one door, take a look around, and choose a different exit. Five years later we re-enter through the same first door but this time we exit through a third. Ten years later we walk in through a fourth door and exit through a fifth that we’ve only just discovered but, we now realize, had been there all along.
There are countless ways to tell the same story. For the past year I’ve been studying Narrative Therapy, which was developed in the 1980s by an Australian social worker named Michael White. Narrative therapy helps clients deconstruct the stories they’ve crafted about their lives, and consider how they might rewrite them as alternate, although equally true, version. A narrative therapy session has probably never been confused with a memoir workshop, but it comes close. The first draft of a personal narrative, especially of student work, typically tilts toward the episodic in an earnest attempt to lay down the plot points of a story. Our job as instructors is to help students extract deeper resonance and meaning or, in the language of the workshop, to “unpack” certain moments and create “takeaways” for readers. The goal being to bring a reflective consciousness to the surface to explain what’s going on behind the scenes.
What narrative therapy calls the thin narrative — the surface details that everyone can agree on – is the story’s static, upper crust. For example, in 1981, when I was seventeen, my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 42. Our family lived in suburban New York, where an ob/gyn told her the lump in her left breast was a cyst of no concern. Her cancer had already progressed to Stage 4 when it was diagnosed in March of 1980. She did chemotherapy for fifteen months until she died the following July.
These are verifiable, documented facts. But the meaning extracted from these facts – the rich narrative – varies from person to person. My younger sister has a different takeaway from those sixteen months than I do. Our younger brother, who was only nine, remember fewer details and interprets them differently. And so forth.
This thin/rich narrative is the same distinction that Vivian Gornick makes between “The Situation and The Story,” what memoirist Sue William Silverman describes as the tension between the Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience, and what Sven Birkerts, author of The Art of Time in Memoir, has described as “the balance between then and now, between event and understanding.” Philip Lopate wrote a whole book about its importance, To Show and To Tell, which is as much a primer on the craft of nonfiction writing as it is about storytelling in ordinary life.
Our own rich narrative is a constantly evolving organism. Exposure to new ideas and experiences, if we’re lucky and stay woke, modifies and enriches our world view, which can alter our interpretation of past events. Years pass. Perspective changes. The binary thinking of childhood, hopefully, matures into a more complex understanding of human motivation and behavior. At seventeen, the story I told of my mother’s late diagnosis was one fueled by anger and blame – why did she wait so long to get a biopsy? Could her life have been saved if her ob/gyn had insisted on it? Were her children not important enough to live for? But at 42, the age she was when she died, my story of her diagnosis, the only story I could see at that point, was one in which she was young and afraid, and trying to prolong having to know what she may have already known. I could not understand this at seventeen. I could hardly bear to take it in at forty two.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to revise the first edition of Motherless Daughters for re-release. The original was eleven years old by then and missing some key events that had taken place in the interim: the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 attacks, findings from the landmark Harvard Childhood Bereavement Study. The absence of that last one made the book seem particularly outdated. An update was necessary.
I’d written the first edition at twenty eight. As I began the second, I was forty one. I had two young daughters. I was one year away from turning my mother’s age at time of death. My father had died a year earlier. So it seemed like a good idea to also rewrite the memoir sections and fold in those new details.
When I read the book straight through I could see how the prior factual details – the thin narrative of the book – were all still true. But the passages of analysis from my 28-year-old point of view and the sense I’d made of my own story, those parts were startling to revisit. Reading the words of that younger self was the closest thing to time travel I’ve ever experienced. Where had this 28-year-old consciousness, so familiar yet so different from the one reading these pages in 2005, gone? All that detail and energy she’d once put into wondering if she’d marry or have children: I wanted to be able to tell her to calm down, that before long both would arrive – though unexpectedly –suddenly and with ease.
Eight years later, when the opportunity to release a third edition arose, reading the revised portions I’d added at forty one was a sweetly poignant task. The distance between forty one and forty nine was not nearly at the gulf between twenty nine and forty one, for me. I was still living in California, same husband, same house, same kids. But by forty nine, I’d passed most of the major milestones I’d once feared. My daughters were in their teens, the oldest preparing to leave for college. I’d been so busy being a mother for sixteen years, and managed so much of my life without parents by then, that my story of mother loss felt less urgent. I wasn’t trying to make peace with it any more. I’d already found it.
But there on the page, my 41-year-old self was in the thick of it still. She was longing for a mother’s help raising her children. She was freaked out about getting her annual mammogram at forty two. That 41-year-old was still searching for a clear path through all of this uncertainty, hoping to find some answers.
Readers didn’t want to hear from someone who’d made it to the other side. I knew that from the emails I’d received over the years. They wanted to hear from someone still immersed in the struggle, someone who they could identify with now. At forty nine, I didn’t share their sense of immediacy any more. I’d finally outgrown my material.
My 41-year-old self, it was clear, was the one who should keep narrating the book. So 49-nine-year-old me inserted the most recent research into the third edition, added new quotes from experts, and attached an afterword explaining my choice. The rest of the book I left in the very capable hands of my 41-year-old self. The most compelling and accessible version of our story, I discovered, belonged to her.
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as repetition in memoir, unless we’re plagiarizing ourselves, pilfering or mechanically recycling our own words from the past. Because to write an essay or memoir is to drop a pin in the consciousness of a moment. Ideally, we capture a fleeting flash of self-understanding as fully and authentically as we can before it turns into something else. That’s the best we can hope for.
Will the way we tell our story today be the same way we would tell it in the future? Hopefully not. As I tell my students, what you make of your story right now might not be what you make of it in ten years. But write it anyway. Toss a Frisbee to that future self and let her catch it in ten years. And then, write the story again.